Sat, Aug 27, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Rising sea levels threaten to destroy Vietnam’s rice bowl

Rising salt levels in the Mekong Delta because of climate change spell disaster for millions of poor farmers and the end of an ancient way of life

By Kit Gillet  /  The Guardian, BEN TRE, Vietnam

Illustration: Constance Chou

Sitting amid buckets of rice in the market, Nguyen Thi Lim Lien issues a warning she desperately hopes the world will hear — climate change is turning the rivers of the Mekong Delta salty.

“The government tells us that there are three grams of salt per liter of fresh water in the rivers now,” she said. “Gradually, more and more people are affected. Those nearest the sea are the most affected now, but soon the whole province will be hit.”

The vast, humid expanse of the delta is home to more than 17 million people, who have relied for generations on its thousands of river arteries, but rising sea water caused by global warming is now increasing the salt content of the river water and threatening the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers and fishermen.

Vietnam is listed by the World Bank among the countries most threatened by rising waters brought about by higher global temperatures, with only the Bahamas more vulnerable to a 1m rise in sea levels. Such a rise could leave a third of the Mekong Delta under water, leading to mass internal migration and devastation in a region that produces nearly half of Vietnam’s rice.

“If there was a 1m rise, we estimate 40 percent of the delta will be submerged,” said Tran Thuc, director general of the Vietnam Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment. “There is also the threat of cyclones and storms linked to climate change. The people in this area are not prepared for any of this.”

Already affected by regular flooding, those who live in the low-lying delta are focusing on the rising salt content of the water in a land that has for thousands of years been used for rice paddies, coconut groves and other crops, which locals rely on for their livelihood.

The Ben Tre Department of Agriculture and Rural Development said salt water at four parts per thousand has, as of April, reached as far as 56km inland, causing significant damage to crops and livestock, with rice production particularly affected.

“Salination will become higher and higher, and the salt season will last longer and be worse,” Thuc said.

The city of Ben Tre, one of the gateways to the Mekong Delta, is inland on one of the many tributaries of the Mekong River where the waters are still only partially affected by the increased salination, but further downriver, the effects are more pronounced.

“I have to travel five hours upstream by boat to fetch water for drinking, washing and cooking,” said Vo Thi Than, 60, who cannot afford the prices charged by those who travel down the river selling fresh water from upstream.

Than lives beside a dock and runs a little restaurant on the small delta island of Cu Lao Oc, home to approximately 6,000 farmers and coconut growers.

“A long time ago, there was no salty season at all. Now, five months a year the water is salty,” she said. “We grow oranges, mandarins, lemons and coconuts, but these trees cannot survive if it is salt water only. During salty seasons, the trees bear less fruit and smaller fruits, and if there was only the salt season, nothing would grow.”

Government officials and international observers are predicting significant lifestyle changes for the delta’s population, which will be forced to adapt to survive.

Dao Xuan Lai, head of sustainable development at the UN Development Program in Vietnam, said: “Rising sea waters will cause inundations to the Mekong and will require drastic changes in lifestyles for the people. They will be forced to switch crops and innovate. People close to river banks and river mouths have already had to find different ways to make a living in fresh water.”

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